A couple of weeks ago, someone tweeted at me to ask for advice on getting their partner "to be more into sex." It turned out that said partner was dealing with depression and had lost all sexual interest. I tried to explain to this man that he really couldn’t do much to make his partner want sex at the moment, that it sounded like the depression was causing the loss of libido. So, I told him that treating the depression would be the best route to treating the libido issue. I got the distinct impression this answer was not satisfactory and was left with a tweet about how a romantic bath would be set up. I felt a knot form in my stomach. I could tell he didn’t quite understand what I was saying - and I wasn’t going to get through to him in less than 140 characters. (For other tips on bringing the love back, check out When Sex Dries Up: How to Get Your Sexy Back.)
It's Not You: 4 Signs Your Partner's Too Depressed to Have Sex
Depression In the Bed
As of 2011, one in 10 adults in the U.S. suffered from depression, according to the CDC. It is an incredibly common, but still largely misunderstood, condition. In a society that struggles to accept ailments we can’t see, depression looks a lot like laziness, emotional over-indulgence, anti-social behavior and a whole host of other things we don’t appreciate in others. Is it any wonder we’re not to quick to recognize its very real symptoms?
For partners of depression sufferers it can be especially hard. When your partner breaks a leg and doesn’t want to go out dancing, you totally get that - and you don't take their desire to stay on the couch as a rejection. When someone's depressed, they look "fine," so it's easy to feel rejected when they don't want to got out and have fun. And it's almost a given when they stop wanting to have sex.
This takes us back to my friend on Twitter and, by extension, all partners of people who are dealing with depression and consequently have no interest in sex. This can feel horrible. This can feel like rejection. This can feel like your partner no long wants you. Let me just make one thing very clear: Your partner’s lack of interest in sex is NOT ABOUT YOU. I can almost guarantee it. Your partner’s lack of interest in sex is about depression and trying to fix just the sex issue will not help. Let me put it to you this way: Asking how to get your partner with depression more interested in sex is like asking how to get your blind friend more interested in Impressionist paintings. Your friend isn't ambivalent toward the art because he hates the Impressionists, he's ambivalent toward the paintings BECAUSE HE'S FREAKING BLIND! Do you get me?
OK, so now that I've got that off my chest, the next question to ask is what exactly your partner's lack of libido is about. Let’s look at that. Here are some of the most common signs that depression is in your bed.
They've Lost Interest ... In Just About Everything
We’ve all heard it in the drug ads on TV: "sudden loss of interest." Even though I've been through years of depression myself, whenever I hear that I picture a dude suddenly putting down the model airplane he was building. That phrase makes it sound like depressed people stop wanting to do just the extraneous stuff, but here’s the deal: In many cases they stop wanting to do anything. At all.
In fact "loss of interest" is a misleading term because, in my experience, it isn't so much that you aren’t interested in doing anything so much as you just can’t. I’ve found that "loss of interest" can easily be translated into "shit be hard." Like insurmountably hard. Small tasks feel massively overwhelming. Even good stuff just feels like such a huge undertaking. I know in my worst times a partner approaching me for sex triggered resentment and thoughts of "Really? You want me to just perform for you?" In the state I was in, I just couldn’t get my head around enjoying sex at all. It felt like a demand and I couldn’t handle demands.
They Hate Themselves ... Even When You Tell Them They Are Great
For many of us, depression keeps a running monologue going in our heads, a continuous loop of "You’re not getting anything done, you’re failing, no one cares about you, you look awful, you suck at everything, remember that time you said that stupid thing in 2003?" When that gets going it is incredibly hard to stop. While you may want to fix that by telling your partner how wonderful/smart/attractive/sexy he or she is to you, it just won't work. Again, that’s not about you, it’s just the nature of the beast.
They Are Tired
We don’t say this enough. Depression is tiring. It is mentally and physically exhausting. I talked to Ashley Manta of Sex Ed with Ashley about it and this is how she described it:
"Some days I wake up after sleeping for almost 10 hours and still feel exhausted. The mere thought of getting out of bed is daunting. I sit up and get dizzy. Once I'm up, I usually move into the living room and sit down in front of the TV for an hour or so. When my partner finally gets home from work in the evening, I already feel like I've worked a whole day (even though I was home all day), and I can barely muster the energy for a hug and kiss. Sex is barely a passing thought. Hell, masturbation is barely a passing thought."
That floored me because I could have written it. It was just so familiar to me. When your partner, who may seem to be very sedentary, tells you they are too tired for sex, it’s not a brush off. Depression kicks your ass.
They Are Taking Anti-Depressants
This one might seem like a no-brainer, but a lot of people assume that taking anti-depressants means problem solved for depression. The reality is that they can make you kind of forget about sex and what it feels like. There are a lot of arguments about the sexual side effects of anti-depressants but according to the New York State Psychiatric Institute, 60 percent of people who take them report sexual complaints. That number can range between 15 and 75 percent depending on the anti-depressant.
That’s right - more than half of people on anti-depressants experience sexual side-effects. The three most common ones are decreased libido, decreased arousal (lubrication in women and erection in men), and difficulty achieving or inability to achieve orgasm. The good news here is that there are drugs that do not have these side effects. That's something you have to work out with your doctor.
My Partner's Depressed? Now What?
For a depressed person, loss of interest in sex is just another symptom of the illness. Trying to treat just that symptom will be futile and frustrating for everyone. If your partner is coping with depression and, consequently, a lack of sexual desire, the best thing you can do to help them get back to feeling sexy is to support them as they seek effective treatment. Yeah, I know that isn't a simple - or sexy - answer. But it's the only way to kick depression out of your bed, and welcome your partner back in with you.
JoEllen is a writer, speaker, researcher and mental health advocate whose work explores the impact of depression on sex and relationships. Since 2012 she has written about sex, mental health, and how none of us are broken on her award-winning site The Redhead Bedhead.
JoEllen's book The Monster Under the Bed: Sex, Depression & The Conversation We Aren’t Having is now available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook.